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Mesha was the king of Moab during the reigns of Kings Jehoshaphat of Judah and Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram of Israel. The Moabites were under the control of the northern kingdom of Israel and paid King Ahab a tribute consisting of 100,000 lambs and 100,000 unshorn male sheep, likely from a breed known for its high-quality wool. After Ahab’s death, Mesha revolted against Israel’s King Ahaziah. However, Ahaziah’s rule was brief, and his brother Jehoram succeeded him. Jehoram formed an alliance with Jehoshaphat of Judah and an unidentified king of Edom to subdue Mesha once more.
Taking a challenging route south of the Dead Sea, their forces eventually ran out of water. Nonetheless, the prophet Elisha assured them that if they dug ditches in the dried-up torrent valley, Jehovah would miraculously fill them with water.—2 Kings 1:1; 3:4-19.
This event unfolded, and the early morning sunlight reflecting off the water created an illusion of blood, possibly due to the presence of red clay in the freshly dug ditches. The Moabites were deceived into believing that the allied forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom had turned against one another. This assumption was not unfounded, considering their awareness of the rivalry between Israel and Judah. Moreover, the Edomites held no affection for the people of Judah, who were aligned with Israel on this occasion. —2 Kings 3:20-23; compare 2 Chronicles 20:10, 11, 24, 25.
Under the impression that their adversaries had annihilated each other, the Moabites exclaimed, “Now, seize the spoils, O Moab!” and proceeded to invade Israel’s camp, only to be swiftly repelled. Israel pursued the Moabites, decimating their cities, obstructing their springs, and scattering stones throughout their territories, until they reached the city of Kir-hareseth (Kir of Moab).—2 Kings 3:23-25.
As King Mesha found himself ensnared, he assembled 700 swordsmen in an attempt to stage a counteroffensive and penetrate the defenses of the king of Edom (possibly anticipating the least resistance there). However, his efforts proved futile. In a desperate act, Mesha sacrificed his firstborn son, who was destined to succeed him on the throne, offering him as a burnt offering upon the city wall.—2 Kings 3:26-27.
A majority of scholars concur that Mesha sacrificed his own son to his deity, Chemosh. A minority argue that he offered a captured son of the king of Edom, referencing Amos 2:1, which mentions Moab “burning the bones of the king of Edom to make lime.” While the Hebrew grammar permits such an interpretation, it appears inconsistent with other known facts. For instance, it was unprecedented for the Moabites and Ammonites, Israel’s neighboring nations, to sacrifice their enemies to their gods. However, it was a documented aspect of their religious practices to offer their own children as burnt sacrifices to appease their gods’ wrath (Deuteronomy 12:30-31; Micah 6:6-7). Consequently, it is plausible that Mesha, a worshiper of Chemosh, would resort to such extreme measures when faced with the imminent threat of defeat.
The Moabite Stone
The Moabite Stone, discovered in Dhiban (Dibon) in 1868, is generally attributed to Mesha and its contents are typically associated with the events detailed in the third chapter of Second Kings. This renowned inscription celebrates Mesha’s liberation from Israel’s control, which he claims lasted 40 years. It also includes various remarks about the locations he seized (Medeba, Ataroth, Nebo, Jahaz) and boasts about his devoutness, city-building, infrastructure development, and a victory he asserts over Israel, crediting the god Chemosh for his accomplishments. Mesha was also aware of Israel’s God, Jehovah, as the Tetragrammaton appears in the 18th line of the document. Here, Mesha gloats: “I took from there the [vessels] of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh.” (PICTURE, Vol. 1, p. 946) Unsurprisingly, his own defeat and his son’s sacrifice are excluded. As the Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1986, p. 57) notes: “Monumental inscriptions on freestanding stones or temple walls were created for propaganda purposes and to glorify the national god and the country’s ruler. Thus, it is not unexpected that Mesha omits any mention of the military campaign led by the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom against his nation, a detailed account of which is provided in the Bible.”
Mesha’s kingdom was the ancient Moabite kingdom, located east of the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan. The Moabites were a Semitic people, closely related to the Israelites, and their history can be traced back to the early Iron Age (roughly 1200-539 BCE). The kingdom’s primary cities were Dibon (or Dhiban), Medeba, and Kir-hareseth (or Kir of Moab), among others. The Moabite kingdom was situated in a fertile region, with agriculture and livestock being the main sources of income.
The Moabites had a complex relationship with their neighbors, including the Israelites, Ammonites, and Edomites. At times, they were subjugated by the Israelites, and at other times, they rebelled and asserted their independence. The Moabite kingdom played a significant role in the politics and conflicts of the ancient Near East.
King Mesha, who ruled in the 9th century BCE, is one of the most well-known Moabite kings due to the Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Stele. This monument, discovered in 1868, provides valuable information about Mesha’s reign, his kingdom, and the Moabite religion. Mesha is credited with breaking free from Israelite domination, which he claimed had lasted for 40 years. Under his rule, the Moabite kingdom expanded its territory, taking control of key cities and engaging in various construction projects.
The Moabite religion was polytheistic, and their chief god was Chemosh. Mesha was a devout follower of Chemosh and attributed his successes to the god’s favor. The Moabite Stone also reveals that Mesha was aware of Israel’s God, Jehovah, as the Tetragrammaton is found in the inscription.
Ultimately, the Moabite kingdom was conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BCE. Despite its eventual decline, the Moabite kingdom remains an important historical and archaeological subject, offering insights into the politics, religion, and culture of the ancient Near East.
Mesha’s rebellion took place during the 9th century BCE, following the death of Israel’s King Ahab. Mesha was the king of Moab, and his kingdom had been under subjugation to the northern kingdom of Israel. The Moabites paid a tribute to King Ahab, which consisted of 100,000 lambs and 100,000 unshorn male sheep.
After Ahab’s death, Mesha saw an opportunity to assert Moab’s independence and rebelled against Israel’s King Ahaziah. Ahaziah’s rule was short-lived, and he was succeeded by his brother Jehoram. In response to Mesha’s rebellion, Jehoram formed an alliance with Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and an unidentified king of Edom. Together, they planned to subdue Mesha and bring Moab back under Israelite control.
The allied forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom took a challenging route south of the Dead Sea and eventually faced a severe water shortage. The prophet Elisha intervened, assuring the armies that if they dug ditches in the dried-up torrent valley, Jehovah would fill them with water. The next morning, the ditches were filled, and the reflection of the sun on the water created an illusion that looked like blood to the Moabites.
The Moabites mistakenly believed that the allied armies had turned against each other and slaughtered one another. Seizing the opportunity, they entered the camp of Israel, only to be met with a united force that repelled their attack. The allied forces pursued the Moabites, destroying their cities, stopping up their springs, and filling their lands with stones. The campaign continued until they reached the city of Kir-hareseth, where Mesha found himself trapped.
In a desperate attempt to break through the enemy lines, Mesha took 700 swordsmen to attack the king of Edom, but the effort was unsuccessful. As a last resort, Mesha offered his firstborn son as a burnt sacrifice to his god Chemosh, hoping to gain divine favor. The rebellion ultimately failed, and Mesha’s kingdom faced devastation. However, the Moabite Stone inscription, attributed to Mesha, glorifies his successes and religious devotion to Chemosh while omitting the details of the rebellion’s failure.
Mesha, the king of Moab, embarked on a rebuilding campaign after he managed to gain some independence from Israelite control. This period of construction and expansion is documented in the Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Stele, which was discovered in 1868 at Dhiban, the ancient city of Dibon. The inscription is generally attributed to Mesha and is dated to the 9th century BCE.
In the Moabite Stone, Mesha boasts about his accomplishments as a ruler and credits his god, Chemosh, for his victories and achievements. He describes how he rebuilt and fortified cities that were previously under Israelite control, such as Medeba, Ataroth, Nebo, and Jahaz. These cities were strategically important and helped Mesha to consolidate his power and extend Moab’s influence.
Mesha’s rebuilding efforts were not limited to military fortifications; he also focused on infrastructure and urban development. He mentions the construction of a highway, a significant project that would have facilitated trade and communication between different regions of his kingdom. This highway likely contributed to the prosperity of Moab during Mesha’s reign.
The Moabite Stone also reveals that Mesha was a devout follower of Chemosh and heavily invested in religious projects. He built temples and shrines dedicated to Chemosh and sought to promote the worship of this deity throughout his kingdom. Mesha’s efforts to strengthen his kingdom were intertwined with his religious devotion, as he saw his successes and achievements as manifestations of Chemosh’s favor.
It is important to note that the Moabite Stone is a piece of royal propaganda, and its purpose was to glorify Mesha’s reign and his devotion to Chemosh. While it provides valuable insights into Mesha’s rebuilding campaign, it omits any mention of setbacks or failures, such as his unsuccessful rebellion against the Israelite, Judahite, and Edomite coalition. Nonetheless, the stone serves as an essential source for understanding the history of Moab and the reign of King Mesha.
Mesha, the king of Moab, was a devoted worshiper of the god Chemosh. Chemosh was the chief deity of the Moabites, an ancient people who lived in the region that is now modern-day Jordan. Chemosh was a significant figure in the Moabite religion, and his worshipers believed he had the power to grant them victories and blessings as well as inflict curses and misfortunes upon their enemies.
Chemosh was often associated with war, fertility, and protection, and he played a central role in the religious and political life of Moab. As king, Mesha sought to further the worship of Chemosh and attributed his successes, military victories, and the rebuilding of cities and infrastructure to the favor and intervention of Chemosh.
The Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Stele, provides valuable insight into the religious beliefs and practices of the Moabites during Mesha’s reign. In the inscription, Mesha boasts about his devotion to Chemosh, constructing temples and shrines in his honor, and offering spoils from his conquests to the god.
In the context of the Hebrew Bible, Chemosh is depicted as a rival god to Yahweh, the god of Israel. The Moabite Stone mentions the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), the Hebrew name for God, revealing that Mesha was aware of the Israelite God. However, Mesha’s allegiance was solely to Chemosh, and he saw himself as a champion of his god in opposition to the Israelites and their deity.
It is essential to understand that religious beliefs and practices were deeply intertwined with politics and power in the ancient Near East. For Mesha, promoting the worship of Chemosh and attributing his successes to the god served to legitimize his rule and strengthen his authority as the king of Moab.
Dating the Mesha Stele
The Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone, is an inscribed black basalt monument that dates back to the 9th century BCE. The stele provides valuable historical information about the Moabite king Mesha, his military campaigns, and his religious devotion to the Moabite god Chemosh. The inscription on the stele is written in Moabite, a language closely related to ancient Hebrew, and is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries for understanding the history of the region during that time.
Dating the Mesha Stele is primarily based on the historical context and content of the inscription. The stele refers to the reign of Mesha and his conflicts with the Israelite kingdom, which can be cross-referenced with biblical accounts found in the Hebrew Bible (specifically in 2 Kings 3). These accounts, along with the linguistic and archaeological evidence, place the Mesha Stele in the 9th century BCE, during the time of the Israelite kings Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram.
It is important to note that the precise dating of the Mesha Stele within the 9th century BCE is still a subject of scholarly debate. Some researchers argue for a date closer to the early part of the century, while others suggest a date closer to the middle or later part of the century. Despite these debates, the consensus remains that the Mesha Stele belongs to the 9th century BCE, providing a crucial source for understanding the history, politics, and religion of the Moabites and their interactions with the Israelites during that time.
Bibliography and Resource List
Albright, W. F. (1942). The Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, (86), 18-28.
Dearman, J. A. (1992). Historical Reconstruction and the Mesha Inscription. In J.A. Dearman (Ed.), Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab (pp. 25-60). Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Finkelstein, I., & Silberman, N. A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press.
Lemche, N. P. (1998). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Lemaire, A. (1988). Moab during the Iron Age. In B. MacDonald (Ed.), Archaeology of Jordan (pp. 257-272). Sheffield: JSOT Press.
Lemaire, A. (1994). Inscriptions royales d’Israël et de Juda. Paris: Cerf.
Lipiński, E. (2006). On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches. Leuven: Peeters.
Mykytiuk, L. J. (2004). Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 BCE. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Rainey, A. F. (2001). Mesha and Syntax. In B. A. Levine & A. Malamat (Eds.), Eretz-Israel: Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies (pp. 127-139). Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Routledge, B. (2004). Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
The British Museum – The Mesha Stele: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1868-1011-1
The Oriental Institute – The Mesha Inscription: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/misc/mesha-inscription
Biblical Archaeology Society – Mesha Stele: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/mesha-stele/
Livius – Mesha Stela: https://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/137-140-mesha-stela/